AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas leads the nation in rural hospital closures. It’s taking a toll on the state’s economy and affecting rural communities.
That’s why dozens of Texas rural health care advocates descended on Washington D.C. this week to urge lawmakers to do something about the health care crisis.
“It all goes back to the money. It all goes back to the cuts,” said Kelly Cheek, a member of the Texas Rural Health Association.
Cheek’s seen firsthand that when hospitals shut down, communities crumble.
“It impacts the economy. It impacts the schools. It’s just a really; it’s a crisis basically when it happens,” he said.
In the past two years, small towns near Abilene, where Cheek lives, lost two hospitals. Now he says it’s a struggle to meet the basic health care needs of those who live in the area.
“You’ve got rural parts of Texas that you’ve got to drive thirty minutes to an hour just for basic primary care needs, not to mention if you have to go to a specialist, you’re talking several hours,” Cheek said.
Cheek joined more than two dozen other Texans for the National Rural Health Association’s annual policy conference in Washington. The group consists of rural health activists who are leading talks on the impact of hospitals boarding up their doors.
“I think that’s one of the things that these organizations work towards: how can we keep these hospitals back open or keep them from closing at all,” he said.
While in D.C., the advocates also met with Texas lawmakers. The goal: push Congress to get more involved in solving the problem – everything from added federal funding to improving health care.
“If you don’t have a small hospital in a rural Texas community, you really don’t have much of a town. And it’s that hospital that kind of holds the community up,” said John Henderson, CEO of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals.
Since 2010, 27 rural hospitals have closed in Texas, according to Henderson.
“If we can hold up these rural hospital communities and clinics, that will improve the health for all Texans,” he said.
Henderson says there isn’t an easy solution to the problem and hospitals will likely continue to struggle.
But health care advocates say one way to help prevent rural hospital closures is to place more physicians in rural areas. That's why several Texas universities have developed rural training programs.
“The idea of this is that it will, just by having the resident positions there, increase the access to care, but also the hope is that after they finish their training at that site, they will stay and practice long term,” said Dr. Timothy Benton, who oversees the rural training track at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Odessa.
Last year, state lawmakers also passed a measure setting up a rural physician grant program.
Dr. Benton says coupled together, that’s a step toward solving the crisis. But he noted that replicating models like the rural program in other areas of health care training like nursing schools, could be one more tool to save rural hospitals.
Click the video link above to watch our full interview with Dr. Benton.